There’s all of the above, and then there’s nothing. The pain in my right shoulder, glasses stacked in boxes made to case wine, the impossibility of cleaning the outside of the uppermost of these old windows. Twelve years ago I learned that bread poisons me, but that was after the doctor took my gall bladder and left me three small scars, a constellation I once told someone was a trio of buckshot marks and she believed me. That was before the turquoise pills that made me sicker, after the ulcer meds and months of saltines, which was all before a lover who was a nutritionist and a jazz singer gave me evening primrose oil and probiotics and I moved to New York City. I need to drink more water and strengthen my rhomboid muscles so I can side plank on my right side again. I know what to do, and I do a little of it. In last night’s dream, I became a beast or I was a beast, I was a beast of immolation. My hands burned and burned anything I tried to touch. It’s almost time to unpack the glasses, open the windows and let the season in. At the liquor store, a man came close to me and said pick your poison -- he didn’t even work there. He had tequila in his basket, but this was in the wine aisle. What I didn’t say was, The day invites you to mastery but you are riveted by mustard. What I didn’t say was, Continents shift and you are busy at the gym. What I said was, Mmmhmm. Right. as I chose a rosé and closed my coat.
At the surgeon’s office when I was 22 and possibly going to have my gall bladder removed, the surgeon said Are you sure you want to do this? And I said, What will happen if I don’t? And he said, You’ll just keep getting worse. And I said, OK then, I guess we should do it. And he said, OK, just don’t get fat afterward.
I asked him why he would say that about getting fat and he said people often gain weight after gall bladder removal because they can eat greasy, fatty food again. I said I didn’t think it would be a problem. This seemed to satisfy him.
The water in this bar is awful, and the television raves and raves. Is the desert a complaint against rain? I want to feel something soft. A man waves from a golf cart, the ice melts in my drink, a country blows up. My hands don’t fit around anything anymore. Water glass, neck, apparition. Today I told the story of my childhood stalker to a stranger at the behest of a lecturer on empathy. Yes, I’ll have another. Can you turn the sound down? I don’t know anyone who died today. I put my hands around a bottle and it dropped. I looked up the firing range of submachine guns and North Korea’s mid-range nuclear missiles. These men, these men with their little lies and guns and golf carts to haul them around in. I want my big life to start. But also this citrus and gin. I lied to the guy at the bar too interested in my ring and notebook, but not to that girl about the stalker. I wonder what happened to him in the end. It went: jail, institution, I don’t know. Sometimes when I think about all the small things I’ve survived, it adds up to a kind of mythology. Years ago, my love and I wandered so long in an apple orchard corn labyrinth that eventually we walked out the side. Just parted the stalks and walked out. The kids with their pumpkin faces gaping. Sometimes lying to strangers is a kind of armor. There’s lightning even in the desert, it’s called a dry storm. What I want evaporates before it hits the ground, but makes some powerful light along the way.
How to start out of silence, the way the mouth makes first a space, then a sound, a cry, a shout out of nothing. I would like to make a space where any sound can live but my every whisper is a muzzle to someone. Still, silence, the silence is a terrible betrayal too. Brutal choices in a brutal time. Maybe your grandmother’s a racist as well. Then this is for you: mine are dead but were the sort who loved Walter Payton and were kind to my dreadlocked Brooklyn friends but avoided the movie theaters full of “them” and the mall stores sure full of “them” and I’m not trying to preach or prescribe anything here. Just to beg us into the human for a minute or two. The way light begs us into radiance after weeks of rain, I don’t know anything. I don’t know anything about pain. There’s a song I used to love that says Do you know what it’s like to be hunted. Do you know what it’s like to be hunted? Do you know what it’s like to be hunted. I’m begging us to be real real human as we head into the month full of witches with fake noses and toilet paper mummies as if witches aren’t women and Egypt isn’t full of mummified remains of actual humans. How quickly we the comfortable cartoon history, and anything that over-flies our common understanding. How we want to remember our grandmothers only as the women who pretended not to know the crossword answers so that we could fill them in first, who called us sugar and unwrapped our candy in the movie theater so quietly no one could hear. Hoping no one sees us inventing our fears out of soundtrack and the dark glistening corners of our mouths.
What does it mean to be a beast, rather than a creature, or a human? If I say of an athlete in an admiring tone, She’s a beast, it’s clear (I think) that I mean she has tapped a power that invokes a sense of envy in me and likely in all who witness her prowess. But then there’s the trouble of historical animal-ification, which is to say de-humanization, of bodies belonging to people of color, of women and others enslaved, subjugated, etc. Can we reclaim the beast? Become beasts of our own making? Re-create ourselves again and again so utterly or so subtlely that we become simultaneously creature and creator?
What do I mean when I say “we?” How do we bind ourselves to each other, and how are we bound irrevocably, without choosing? I have been hunted. I imagine you have been too. I can understand some edges of the lives of the people I love who are hunted in ways I am not, partly because I have been hunted and partly because I love them. I understand too that there are gaps in that understanding that nothing can bridge, and I work to fill the gap with love, as corny as that may sound so that what flows into the space between us from my side is as pure an offering as I can make.
A few months ago, my friend’s wife entered the women’s restroom in a restaurant where they were eating dinner. In Chicago, in a neighborhood with a large queer population. Nearly two decades into the 21st century. The bartender left his spot behind the bar to bang his fist on the bathroom door loudly and call for Marjorie to exit. Marjorie has very short hair. Marjorie wears clothes that mostly come from the side of the store marked for men. Marjorie is a woman. Marjorie stayed inside the bathroom and her wife approached to ask what the issue was. The bartender shouted, “There’s a man in there!” And her wife said no, that’s my wife. My friend went into the bathroom and brought her shaken wife out. The bartender was still angry. Did not apologize. Shouted about how was he to know. That he was watching out for people’s safety.
My wife has very short hair. My wife wears clothes that mostly come from the side of the store marked for men. My wife is a woman. I have long hair. I wear clothes that mostly come from the side of the store marked for women. I don’t worry when I go to the bathroom that other occupants will startle and yell “sir, this is the ladies’ room.” I don’t worry that someone will go tell the bartender or the bouncer that there’s a man in there, don’t worry about what that bartender or bouncer will do before or after they realize their error.
Years ago I was partnered with a Black man. One night he was driving a friend’s car to our apartment, and just as he turned off the highway he was pulled over by two cops. My partner had no license. The car was not in his name. As I ran the six blocks to the highway, white fist whitening around my license, I could see the blue and red police lights splashing against the concrete overpass, and each step pounded out prayer after prayer that around the corner was a beloved body unbroken, guns still holstered, luck intact, and it was, it was -- the one cop said “Just in time” and the other pointed to a tow truck pulling up as if that were the worst that could have happened.
A man stalked me for years before I turned 20. I’ve been cornered and held down, been followed down streets bright and dark, not taken my love’s hand in public for fear of who’s watching. I know what it’s like to be hunted, and I know there are those I love for whom nowhere is without danger. I believe it does not have to be this way.
Somewhere in a Cincinnati landfill are the small ashes left after the parts of my gall bladder that were broken apart by laser and sucked out through an incision just under my navel were incinerated as medical waste. Removing my gall bladder did not improve anything about my body. My hands do not in waking fact burst into flame, though often in dreams and frequently in meditations. I have thirteen tattoos on my body. The most recent and visible graces my forearm in the shape of a compass-like star adapted from The Star card of the traditional tarot deck. I got it after my uncle died and I remembered again that there is no time to waste being anything but the brightest beast possible. I don’t know why you get tattoos, but for me it’s always healing. To break the skin, the body’s largest organ, and be in this small way reborn.
Tiamat Eva Medusa is a dragon who was assigned male and human at birth. Her body is covered with inked scales patterned after the western diamondback rattlesnake. Her ears, her eyes, her teeth, and her tongue have all been modified into dragon alignment. I would say, admiringly, she’s a beast. She might have done more to the man with the tequila than nod and move away. Then again, she knows what it is to walk the world as a man and as a dragon, and I’ve only ever been this girl.
Whatever made my mother is as gone as the incision the doctor made to get me out. I wanted to stay, my heel hooked under a rib, but here we are. Human and alive again. Across the boulevard, a light goes on and then off. I’m older now than my mother was at my high school graduation. Her father spent most of her adolescence dying. He was not a kind man, and I know I remind her of him. Often my highest aspiration is silence.
Whatever sweetness I own, I owe to the body that made me, that rocked me through the months I could not stop screaming. The earth is a brutal place to which to return. But also there is the way cucumbers surrender their flesh to water, there is a lover’s voice over the telephone, far away but still adoring, there are trees leaning down to touch the parked cars, the slobbering dogs and the stoplights with their certain patterns, the way glitter gets into everything and refuses to disappear or be brushed away, infinitesimal glinting prisms in a city of clamor and guns, death and furniture and the constant need to clean, dust on everything from the windows opened to let the air in, all the flies and seasons and mothers we love against our dying, mothers we forgive for bringing us to this dear, godforsaken place with only the weapons they know.
The day before my friend Gabrielle died, she was wearing her “fuck cancer” knit cap, sitting up in her hospice bed, working. The day she died, I was driving around to vintage stores with my friend Phil, waiting to be told when we could come by to see her again. When we got the call to come now, right now, I was holding a cowboy shirt and looking at a mannequin that was mostly torso. We were allowed to go in and say goodbye one at a time, so I held my friend Wammo’s baby while he went in. To keep her quiet, I went into the small chapel room where the light made bright patterns through the stained glass. Gabrielle’s dad assumed I was Wammo’s wife, the baby’s mother, and it didn’t seem important to correct him. When I went into Gabbi’s room, she was gone, as gone as a person can be and still be breathing. A body has never looked to me so much like a pocket, or an emptied balloon. The air was so thin and present it hung like gauze over us all while we waited.
My tattoo for her, and for Blair, and Melissa, and Kent, and Heather, says I am living. I remember you. It’s the last line of Marie Howe’s poem What the Living Do. What I remember most clearly about each of these people is how they laughed. I can hear it but I can’t describe it. When I say to you, someday you and I are going to die, what does that remind you of? I can’t place the phrase, and the internet is of no help. Is it a song lyric? A book title? Something someone once said to me in a dream? It feels as familiar as my sternum, where I flatten my hand to calm me down.
Novelist P. O. Enquist wrote, “One day we shall die. But all the other days we shall be alive.” Someone, possibly Charles Schultz himself but I suspect an internet meme philosopher as I can’t find the original source and the font is wrong, adapted this into a Snoopy comic. Looking out from a short pier onto a blue lake, Charlie Brown says, “Some day, we will all die, Snoopy!” and Snoopy says, “True, but on all the other days, we will not.”
In Ram Dass’ brilliant documentary “Going Home,” he talks about how his stroke, which had him almost fully immobilized for a long time and from which he will never fully recover, was a blessing in that it took him inward more fully than ever, even after a long life built on introspection. He says “I don’t wish you the stroke, but I wish you the grace from the stroke.”
Lines toward the Kate Knapp Johnson’s poem “Envoy Prayer” read
two girls sail their bright-tailed kite over the schoolyard
while the lilacs snow down –
honey peach, and honey pear, each gift
ravishes, and restores in us
what will also be broken again
and again, without reconciliation.
Without reconciliation. With ravishment. Each gift -- every rejoicing, every failure, every poison chosen or evaded -- makes us the creatures we are, here, breathing and breaking. Breaking and breathing. Beastial. She prays:
do not save us
from this world.
Save us in it.
Save us in it. I choose all of the above. Someday you and I are going to die. But here we are, largely intact, frequently healing, most of our organs assorted as they should be, holding and filtering and excreting and receiving light so another organ, the big squishy grey one, can look, look at that, isn’t that the most exquisite film of dust ever to coat an apartment window? Isn’t it glorious? And the heart organ is not grateful, the organ heart pumps blood, but the heart is grateful, it is. All of the above.
Marty McConnell lives in Chicago, Illinois, and received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her second poetry collection, “when they say you can’t go home again, what they mean is you were never there,” won the 2017 Michael Waters Poetry Prize, and her work has recently appeared in Best American Poetry, Vinyl, Southern Humanities Review, Gulf Coast, and Mid-American Review. She is co-founder and editor of “underbelly,” an online magazine focused on the art and magic of poetry revision. Her first full-length collection is “wine for a shotgun,” (EM Press,) and YesYes Books recently published her first non-fiction book, “Gathering Voices: Creating a Community-Based Poetry Workshop.”